Picture of the Week: Melvindale by James Stephens

June 12, 2023

James Stephens, Melvindale, 1995, oil on canvas, 49 x 42 1/4 in.

James Stephens is a Chicago-based artist. He earned his BFA in 1982 from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, MI. Since then, he has exhibited his work in numerous group and solo exhibitions throughout the United States, including his 2007 show “James Stephens, A Mid-Career Retrospective” at the Oakland University Art Gallery in Rochester, MI. He has received several awards throughout his career, such as the Midwest Visual Arts Fellowship in 1986 and Individual Artist Grants from the Michigan Council for the Arts in 1987 and 1990. Stephens’s artwork is part of many public and private collections, such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne State University, University of Wisconsin, Little Caesar’s Inc., Andrew and Gayle Camden, Barbara and Ross Bunting, Darlene Carroll, Ann Marie Erickson, and G.R. N’Namdi.

Stephens is known for his unique landscapes, which often include elements of still life painting. He incorporates components from his imagination, along with objects and spaces from “memories or everyday observation.” Each detail of his compositions “are a result of conscious and subconscious decisions made during the painting process.” His process possesses a fluidity that one might liken to Surrealist automatism. Likewise, his paintings “are then a reflection of the way our thoughts are randomly changing, with one idea inevitably triggering another, and a single image including elements of past, present, and future.” Oftentimes, Stephens’s compositions reflect on his interactions with the urban environment. The objects and urban landscapes in his paintings culminate to function “as a record or evidence of his experience in the world.”

These ideas and subject matter are reflected in Stephens’s 1995 painting Melvindale. The buildings and smoke in the distance indicate that Stephens has situated his objects in an urban setting. More specifically, his title establishes that this scene is in Melvindale, which is known as a little city with a big heart. Located south of Detroit, Melvindale is a blue collar suburb. It is also known for its key role in the railroad traffic of metro Detroit. Additionally, Stephens has a personal connection to Melvindale; It is where his mother was raised and where his two aunts lived. Stephens shares that this is not an illustration of Melvindale, but a collage of working class symbols. He fills the composition with a plethora of objects, such as a top hat, a bowling pin, trees, and flowers, duck hunting decal, plum bob, among many more.The horizontal lines to the left of the composition appear to be railroad tracks, offering a link to Melvindale citizens working on the railroad. Along with Stephens’s diverse use of objects, his use of color contributes to the juxtaposition between the imaginary and real life. He paints the objects in bright colors reminiscent of the childlike wonder of toys. In contrast, Stephens employs earthtones for the ground and cityscape. Stephens’s innovative use of subject matter and color creates a captivating marriage between the real and the imaginary.

Written by Angela Athnasios

Sources: James Stephens






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